Answer Man: Can detasseling corn kill workers?

News-DemocratAugust 3, 2013 

I have read over the years about teenagers in Kansas and Nebraska being hurt or even killed while detasseling corn. They were electrocuted either from lightning or contact with faulty irrigation equipment. I've never heard about that around here. What's the difference between our corn and theirs? -- Phil Carlton

I suppose city slickers like me never give it a second thought.

We figure farmers simply plop a few kernels in the ground, watch the stalks grow as high as an elephant's eye and harvest it. We then cook it, slather it with butter and sink our teeth into a classic summertime treat. Shucks, what could be easier? And, for farmers who grow the corn we eat, that's kind of the whole story in a nutshell.

But where do they get their seed? Decades ago, farmers would usually save part of their crop and replant it in the spring. But since about 1950, they have found that planting hybrid seeds, which are a cross between two types of corn, can yield a far superior crop. So now there are farmers who specialize in growing special seed corn that will be used by other farmers who grow the corn we eat.

Every summer, it's these seed-corn farmers who need an agrarian army to do the sweaty grunt work of going through a field and removing the tassels from certain stalks. Yes, you will find them on Illinois farms that grow seed corn -- Team Corn, for example, alone has hired hundreds of detasselers each summer for the past 13 years in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. And, I regret to say, there have been very rare but equally tragic accidents here, too.

In late July 2011, two 14-year-old Sterling girls were killed near Tampico while detasseling corn. Two other workers were injured seriously and six more were hurt. The workers apparently had stepped into puddles left from the previous day's rainstorm that had become electrified by the irrigation system in the field.

Such accidents aren't supposed to happen, says Kayla Clark, operations manager of the Illinois Corn Growers Association in Bloomington. She says the major seed companies who hire these detasselers for the farmers train them to avoid such situations.

"Before I joined the association, I worked for Monsanto, and I know it has really, really strict safety standards," she told me.

Yet, as you can see, these workers do face risks. But here's why those youngsters are sorely needed to perform this critical task, according to information provided by Tom Jett at the St. Clair County Farm Bureau:

When you leave things to Mother Nature, a corn plant usually will pollinate itself. But to produce better corn, seed-corn fields are planted with two different strains so they can cross-pollinate.

One of these strains will produce the new hybrid seed corn. The other strain will serve only to pollinate. But to make this happen, the first strain has to be physically detasseled so that it doesn't pollinate itself. And, it has to be done at just the right time -- too early and you may decrease the yield; too late and the plant will have started to pollinate itself, ruining the seed.

So, at hopefully just that Goldilocks moment, the corn is detasseled -- usually in two steps. First, machines make a rough initial pass. But these machines typically remove only 70 percent of the tassels. That may sound like a lot, but at least 99.5 percent must be removed to produce the quality of seed desired.

As a result, roughly 100,000 detasselers -- usually students as young as 12 -- are hired each year by companies like Team Corn to finish off the task in what is usually the hottest part of the summer.

Workers make their way through the designated rows, making sure each stalk is detasseled and that tassels torn off by the machines are on the ground and not left on a corn stalk. Two or three passes may be necessary.

As you might imagine, conditions often are anything but pleasant. Days off are rare, the working season lasts maybe three weeks, and days may start and end early so you can avoid some of the heat. Pay may be based on how many rows of corn you pass or may range from minimum wage to as much as $10 or $12 an hour.

The end result: Seed to produce a bumper crop the following year and money to stuff in the detasselers' college fund. For more information -- or if you'd like to try your own hand next year -- see varsitydetasseling.com or teamcorn.com.

Today's trivia

How did actress Lauren Hutton once try to fill in that now-signature gap between her front teeth?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Even when you think you're standing still, you're not really. As an inhabitant of Earth, you are whizzing around the sun at 18 miles a second as our planet makes its annual 585-million-mile orbit. And that's not counting the fact that someone at the equator is moving at about 1,000 miles an hour because of the earth's daily rotation. Kinda leaves you dizzy, doesn't it?

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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